K-zoo River Oil Spill

K-zoo River Oil Spill

A new SPH graduate finds herself at the heart of a public health emergency.

In late July 2010, a pipeline near Marshall, Michigan, owned by Enbridge Energy Partners, broke, spilling more than a million gallons of heavy crude oil into a creek that drains into the Kalamazoo River. It was the largest inland oil spill in Midwest history—and one of Michigan’s biggest-ever environmental disasters. Nearly two years later, crews under the direction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are still laboring to clean the river. SPH alumna Kim Hekman had just finished her M.P.H. in epidemiology and was in her second month of a two-year fellowship with the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) when news of the spill reached her office in Lansing. Although her fellowship—a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists Applied Epidemiology Fellowship—was designed to provide applied epidemiology experience at the state or local level, Hekman never imagined she’d find herself at the heart of a major health emergency so quickly. She remembers:

First, they pulled toxicologists into the response, and then epidemiologists. I was part of a team sent to the emergency headquarters in Marshall. We were there for three weeks, seven days a week, in an elementary school that had been turned into an emergency operations center.

There were rumors that hundreds of people in Calhoun and Kalamazoo Counties were sick and flooding the emergency rooms. Our primary objective was to quantify the number of sick people and the extent of illness, so under the direction of MDCH medical epidemiologist and SPH faculty member Eden Wells, and in collaboration with the Michigan Poison Control Center, we set up a surveillance system involving local physicians and hospitals who saw patients with oil-spill-related complaints. We looked at emergency department data to see if visits for symptoms—respiratory, gastrointestinal, neurological, rash—that might be related to oil exposure were above a normal threshold. We learned that people were definitely getting sick with acute symptoms, but not as many people as the initial rumors implied. We sent daily reports to the Calhoun County Health Officer, who used these reports to update everyone at the emergency operations center. Daily surveillance summary fact sheets went out to both the county and state health departments.

We also created a health survey and went door-to-door in four communities we’d identified as being impacted by the oil spill. We worked in teams, with members from both the Michigan Department of Community Health and the Calhoun County Public Health Department. People really appreciated knowing that we cared enough to come to their houses and talk to them. It helped take away some of the fear.

I loved being involved in public health in a more hands-on way, knowing the data I was helping to collect was being used on a daily basis to inform people of what was actually happening and to help reassure citizens.